Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Technique Tuesday: Shooting In The Sun

Good Morning Everybody,

We wrapped a great evening with the very enthusiastic Denver photographers last night and gave away another $4000 worth of door prizes - the crowd loved it. It was also nice to visit with some past attendees of my Digital Master Class too - lots of good people in Denver. By the way, if you haven't heard, we've announced the dates for the Summer Master Class - July 27 - July 31, 2009. Here is all the info right here. You can also call the studio at 859-341-5900 for more info and to reserve your seat.

Several Master Classes have been international events with attendees coming from as far as Nigeria, New Zealand, and Belgium. That's what makes the class exciting - photogs from all over the world coming together for the love of photography. Maybe we will see you at the next one in July.

Help Wanted:
Yep, I'm putting out the call for volunteers to help with the set up and tear down of our Digital WakeUp Call as it heads down the West Coast starting in Seattle on May 5, 2009. Here is the link to the West Coast dates. I know we still have a few opening for volunteers. Drop LaDawn an email at ladawn@ziser.com - the goodies await for our volunteers.

OK, everybody, are you ready for a different, yet very informative Technique Tuesday today - then please read on. Here we go...

Technique Tuesday: Shooting In The Sun
Hey gang, I've got a nice treat for everybody today. Ray Vilalobos, Director of Multimedia at Entravision Communications and Adjunct Instructor at Seminole Community College was in the audience when we brought the Digital WakeUp Call tour [link] through Florida a few weeks ago.

I got an email from Ray later offing to do an article for DPT. I was thrilled to have an instructor of his caliber offer to do a post at DPT. Ray has written a book entitled, "Exploring Multi-Media For Designers" [link] and runs a very cool web site called Planet of the Web [link].

We talked about some different topics and he suggested an article targeted on how to shoot in the sun. I guess those Florida photographers have to deal with that pretty often. I thought it was a good idea and that was that. So today, we have my first guest blogger post by Ray Villalobos entitled,"Don't Forget The Sun." Here we go...

Don't Forget The Sun - by Ray Villalobos
As a photographer, the sun can be your most powerful ally as well as your most bitter enemy. What will make the difference is your understanding of light and how to control it. Make no mistake, dealing with sunlight is all about learning to tame a very powerful but small light source.
I often divide shooting situations into two categories: indoor and outdoor. Each of these has it's own set of challenges, but generally speaking, when shooting inside, your problem is not having enough light to obtain a proper exposure.

When shooting outside, you'll usually have plenty of light, so the problem becomes learning to get the light to do what you want aesthetically. Because I have to shoot mainly during work hours, I often have to deal with the sun as a light source. So I've learned some tips about working with the sun that I'd like to share with you, but first let's talk about light itself.

The Basics of Light
Light has three properties that are important to photographers: Color, Brightness and Contrast. We deal with color in light through white balance controls in our camera, brightness refers to the amount of light available and contrast refers to the harshness of the light...a harsh light casts hard shadows, a soft light casts soft shadows. In photography, a softer light is almost always a better light. A hard shadow will augment any imperfections in skin and is not always flattering.

Although the color of sunlight changes throughout the day, you're not generally concerned with the color of the light source when shooting outside. Using the proper white balance settings on your camera, custom white balancing it, or shooting in Camera RAW will usually take care of any issues you may have with the color of the light. So the bigger problems are dealing with brightness and contrast. In addition to that, you'll also have to deal with the position of the light in relationship to your subjects.

The Biggest Problem
Frankly, I think the biggest problem with the sun is the lack of control you have over the source. If I'm shooting inside, I can move my lights wherever I want, easily add modifiers and adjust the power settings to whatever I need to get the best exposures. When dealing with sunlight, you're working with something that is in a fairly fixed position, no power adjustments and which is affected by circumstances beyond your control like the weather. But like a zen master, you must learn to work with it.

Location, Location, Location
My first way to deal with sunlight is to understand it's position in relationship to what I'm trying to shoot. As soon as I reach a location, I survey what the sun is doing and think about how best to position my elements to work harmoniously with it. The position of the sun often dictates the position of my subjects.
Since I can't control the position of the sun, I work with what I can control, which is the position of my subjects. If the sun is too bright, look for shadows underneath the trees or under buildings where most of the light will not be direct, but reflected, softer light.

The photo above was taken outside a bathroom. Not the most exotic place in the world, but the background really worked well with her dress and since it was an extremely clear day we were looking for shady places to photograph in. Working with the sun means looking for places where the light is doing something great, even if they place doesn't necessarily appear exciting.

The Weather
Before a shoot, you should check the weather to see what kind of day it's going to be. If you want clear blue skies, look for a high pressure system blowing across the area, generally a cold day is a clear day. Do remember that on a cold day, your batteries will drain more quickly, so make sure you bring extra on those days.
If you're not shooting the sky or don't mind a few clouds, clouds are excellent diffusers, making your light and shadows soft and pleasing. I think a partially cloudy day is the best day to shoot. Beautiful fluffy clouds make interesting backgrounds and their ability to diffuse the light means a pleasing light source.

On a cloudy day, like in the photo above, I can time my photos so that they happen when the sunlight is being diffused by clouds, which makes the light softer and more pleasant.
You can't control the weather, but you should understand how it will affect the quality of your photographs and use it's different properties to your advantage.

The Problem with Brightness
Having a lot of light can be both a blessing and a curse. Having a lot of light means you have a lot of flexibility with your camera settings. Bright sunlight allows you to shoot with a large range of shutter speeds, which means you can freeze fast motion, and it allows you to shoot with small apertures, yielding sharp photos.

Timing Your Shoots
There are lots of situations when you want to shoot at lower shutter speeds. What if, for example, you want to soften a stream of water, or show light trails in your photographs? Or, as in the photo above of my daughter, you want a narrow depth of field. A narrow depth of field is achieved with a low F-Stop, nearly impossible to do with full sun, but easy to accomplish during the magic hour.
At low shutter speeds too much light is your enemy. But thankfully, the brightness of the sun changes throughout the day. If you're looking to shoot at lower shutter speeds or F-Stops, you simply have to time your sessions accordingly.

This means shooting earlier or later in the day. Photographers usually refer to this time as Magic Hour. It's really two magic half hours that occur one half hour before sunrise and a half hour after sunset. The sunlight during this time acts as reflected light, which means soft, diffused shadows.

Another tool you can use is a neutral density filter. This type of filter goes in front of your lens and is like adding sunglasses to your camera. It will make less light pass through the lens, allowing you to shoot at lower F-Stops and still achieve a narrower depth of field in some situations. They come in different strengths.

Problems With Contrast
Too much light is usually a blessing to me when dealing with outside photography. The bigger problems are with the quality of the light. Hard light in photography is often considered inferior to soft light.

Subjects with bad skin can look even worse in harsh light. A hard light like in the photo above creates the dreaded "Raccoon Eyes"–hard shadows around the eyes. A hard light can also make the subject squint, which is also not desirable in photos.

What makes the sunlight hard ?What makes a light hard is the apparent size of the sun in relationship to the subject. A bigger light is a softer light. I'm not referring to the physical size of the light, the sun is immensely large, you could fit about one million earths inside the sun, but it's also incredibly far away...more than 92 million miles away. Because of this, it appears as a very small light source and a very small, but bright light source always casts a hard light. In order to tame the sun, we must learn to make it bigger.

Making The Sun Bigger
Okay, you can't actually make the sun bigger, but you can make the light coming from the sun behave as if it were bigger. You already know how this looks, because clouds are natural diffusers of light. They scatter the light coming from the sun making it softer, but on a clear day, clouds are nowhere to be found so you can make your own.

You can buy a diffuser that you can place in the path of the sun like in the picture above to create your own shadow. The sun will actually pass through the diffuser and it will change the direction of the light rays so that they scatter and fall on the subject unevenly, creating softer shadows and solving the problems with squinting. Any translucent material will work, but I recommend buying a circular diffuser like the one above because it's collapsible, and you can use them with a reversible cover that can be used as reflectors of different colors.

A reflector is any object that can be used to redirect light (in this case sunlight) by changing the direction of the light. For this photo, the light was harsh, so we looked for a tree, then used a reflector to cast some light back onto the subject. The reflector used was the same as the diffuser attachment we used for the previous photo, but with the cover on using a yellow side to give the model a warmer color.

A reflector can help you control sunlight by redirecting it when it's not in a location that's convenient.

Supplementing Sunlight
The problem with using diffusers is that they weaken the light, and they still make it come from the same angle as the sun. Good light is not only soft, but it should also be directional. Your light should look like it's coming from a location which is dictated by your creativity, not the sun's position. In order to change the apparent position of your light source in full sun, you have to supplement the light with flashes or other light sources.

Unless you diffuse the flashes, you'll have the same issues with the light being as hard as the sunlight so I often use umbrellas in front of my flashes to soften the light coming from them as well. In the shot above, I used two flashes on a white shoot-through umbrella to slight camera right to make sure I'm controlling the direction of the light. The sun is essentially lighting the background on this photo and I'm lighting the subject.

Speaking of shooting things at the worse possible time, we took these pictures when the sun was pretty high in the sky, so in order to cross light Aaron, I had to have him get up on this ledge, and get my lighting team to hold the flashes and umbrellas pretty high. Still, this is a pretty dramatic shot that yields impressive results.

Cross Lighting
Another technique you can use when dealing with the sun is to put your subject directly opposite the sun and use flashes to light the subject from the other side. The sun will create a nice rim light. This is easier to do when the sun is lower in the sky, but it didn't stop me from setting up the shot.

Have Fun
These kind of lighting situations can be a challenge, but learning to control the power of the sun to your advantage will help you become more aware of available light problems and force you to think of creative ways you can solve them. For more lighting tips and other tutorials, visit my website. http://planetoftheweb.com/.

Hope you guys and girls enjoyed Ray's article. And, my thanks to Ray for a great article on how to shoot in a very difficult lighting situation.

Hey gang, that's it for me today. We got a long beautiful drive to Salt Lake City today. See everybody in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains tomorrow. Adios, -David


  1. Thanks David. Harsh sun can be a real challenge I it was neat to hear different ways to handle it.


  2. Wow, great informational post, so much info to digest I'll have to read it again. Great photos, BTW! Take care!

  3. Very interesting and informative post for an amateur photographer like me. Hopefully I will learn a lot from your blog.